MH17: Australia unites to demand action on downed plane

By Kathy Marks

Putin visit for Brisbane summit unthinkable, say commentators.

Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott vowed to maintain pressure on Vladimir Putin after a phone call to the Russian President. Photo / AP
Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott vowed to maintain pressure on Vladimir Putin after a phone call to the Russian President. Photo / AP

Australia continued to spearhead international demands yesterday for Russian-backed rebels to allow unrestricted access to the MH17 crash site, as politicians and media displayed rare unity in the aftermath of the worst atrocity to hit the country since the 2002 Bali bombings.

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"Bring Them Home", urged the Sydney Morning Herald and Daily Telegraph on their front pages yesterday, referring to the bodies of 38 Australian citizens and permanent residents killed on the Malaysia Airlines plane shot down in eastern Ukraine.

The death toll rose after it emerged that Gabriele Lauschet, a German national living in Sydney, was among the dead. Lauschet, a pre-school teacher, had recently got engaged to a colleague at her school, Andreas Schaaf.

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As Foreign Minister Julie Bishop travelled to New York to lobby for unanimous support for an Australian-drafted UN Security Council resolution, expected to be voted on this morning New Zealand time, Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott vowed to maintain pressure on Vladimir Putin after a phone call to the Russian President.

Putin said "all the right things" about the incident, Abbott told a press conference, adding: "The challenge now is to hold the President to his word."

If Russia vetoed the Security Council resolution, he said, it would be looked on "very badly" by Australia, which is mourning the second highest number of MH17 victims after the Netherlands.

The resolution condemns "in the strongest terms" the shooting down of the plane, which was en route from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur, demands that those responsible be held to account and expresses "grave concern at reports of insufficient and limited access to the crash site and of tampering with evidence".

Like many other countries, Australia is increasingly frustrated by the situation at the crash site, which Abbott described yesterday as "absolutely shambolic". It looked "more like a garden clean-up than a forensic investigation ... The wreckage has been picked over, it's been trashed, it's been trampled," he said.

Bishop urged the separatists and their Russian backers to think of the families of the 298 victims.

"This is not a time to use bodies as hostages or pawns in a Ukrainian-Russian conflict," she said.

"I cannot imagine any other air crash in history where, days later, bodies are still lying in the field."

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The Government has dispatched former defence chief Air Chief Marshal Angus Houston to Ukraine to lead Australia's efforts to repatriate bodies. Earlier this year, Houston co-ordinated the ultimately fruitless, Australian-led international mission to find the missing Malaysia Airlines plane, MH370, in the southern Indian Ocean.

Watch: Rebels say black boxes will be returned

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The shock and outrage felt by Australians at the downing of MH17 has been reflected in media coverage. In a front-page headline, the Weekend Australian called it "A Crime Against Humanity", while the Telegraph said the victims had been "Taken by Evil".

In an editorial yesterday, the Australian warned that "not since the darkest days of the old Soviet Union ... has Russia been more of a pariah", adding: "Getting tough with the Russian bully is long overdue."

Nearly every commentator across the papers opined that the idea of Putin attending the G20 summit in Brisbane in November was unthinkable.

Altogether, 45 Australian officials, including 20 Federal Police officers and two Australian Transport Safety Bureau investigators, are in or on their way to Ukraine. Abbott, who has telephoned some of the victims' families, said: "We want to retrieve the bodies, we want to investigate the site and we want to punish the guilty."

Families fear bodies will be used as 'bargaining chip'

The families of the Britons who perished in flight MH17 fear that pro-Russian rebels may keep the bodies as a "bargaining chip".

In a tense phone call, British Prime Minister David Cameron told Russian President Vladimir Putin he was partly to blame for the "appalling tragedy" and demanded access to the crash site so victims' families could hold "proper funerals".

He told the Russian leader that the "world is watching" and urged him to "change course" or face tough new sanctions.

Putin last night accused others of exploiting the crash for "mercenary objectives."


Russian President Vladimir Putin, right, speaks to Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev after a moment of silence mourning the victims killed in the Malaysia. Photo AP

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Putin said Russia was doing everything possible to allow a team of experts from the International Civil Aviation Organisation, a UN agency, to investigate the scene. He also again criticised Ukraine authorities in Kiev for reigniting the fighting with pro-Russian rebels. "We can say with confidence that if fighting in eastern Ukraine had not been renewed on June 28, this tragedy would not have happened. Nobody should or does have a right to use this tragedy for such mercenary objectives."

Pro-Russian separatists have taken control of the crash site in eastern Ukraine and loaded the remains of almost 200 victims on to a train. The British Government wants rebels to allow the Red Cross to take charge of bodies.

Relations called on Western leaders to do more to ensure the bodies of their loved ones are returned. Ten Britons died in the disaster and their families are fearful over when, or if, the bodies will be returned.

Hugo Hoare, whose brother Andrew died, said: "What the hell is going on? The fact that the rebels have taken the bodies concerns me. Are they taking care of them? What are they going to do with them?

"I just hope whatever they are doing is humane and their intention is just to release them at the appropriate time. The first thing I thought was what if they are going to use them as a bargaining chip?

Asked if he feared the rebels might try to use the bodies to their advantage, Barry Sweeney, whose son Liam died, said: "It is a concern. It is a situation I am trying not to think about."

He added: "These are 298 innocent people who have died and my request to the Government is for them to do what they can to sort this out. Everyone needs to stop being idiots and bring these people home so they can be laid to rest."

- additional reporting Telegraph Group Ltd, AP

- NZ Herald

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